A most attractive place to live and visit, Repton is renowned for its historic past and excellent school

Great British Life: The tower and spire of St Wystan's ChurchThe tower and spire of St Wystan's Church (Image: as submitted Mike Smith)

After cautiously descending an uneven flight of steps through a curving low passageway, you come to a subterranean chamber that is a mere sixteen feet square. As your eyes adjust to the dim light, you begin to pick out four columns that support the low vaulted ceiling. Clearly pre-Norman, the columns are decorated with crudely-etched spirals and topped with simple block-shaped capitals.

The still, silent space in which you are standing is the tiny crypt of St Wystan’s Church in Repton, which Sir John Betjeman memorably described as ‘Holy air encased in stone’. Nominated by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the most precious survivals of late Saxon architecture in England’, the crypt served a mausoleum for the Kings of Mercia, who ruled over a great swathe of England stretching from the Humber to the Thames, with Repton as its capital.

Repton began to lose its status as long ago as 699AD, when the bishopric of the diocese of Mercia was moved to Lichfield. However, if we interpret the adjective ‘capital’ as a term for ‘excellent’, the village still deserves to be called a ‘capital place’. It certainly has many examples of excellent architecture, not least in the magnificent form of St Wystan’s fourteenth-century tower and its elegant recessed spire, which reaches the commanding height of 212 feet.

Until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the church abutted an Augustinian priory founded in 1172. The ruins and grounds of the former priory were purchased under a bequest made in 1557 by Sir John Port, enabling Repton’s famous public school to come into being on this ancient site.

Great British Life: The Priory Arch at the entrance to Repton SchoolThe Priory Arch at the entrance to Repton School (Image: as submitted Mike Smith)

After passing through the Priory Gateway, I was met by Kathy Twigg, the Marketing and Development Officer, who had offered to show me around the school, which charges fees of £32,000 per year and has some 650 students, including 450 boarders. Famous alumni include writers Roald Dahl and Christopher Isherwood, actors Basil Rathbone and Graeme Garden, and Michael Ramsey, who became Archbishop of Canterbury, as did two former Headmasters. Controversial broadcaster and journalist Jeremy Clarkson is another former Repton student but, by his own admission, he was asked to leave the school after ‘behaving unacceptably’.

Founded as a boys’ school, Repton has been fully coeducational since 1990 and its female students are now carrying on a tradition of sporting excellence exemplified by alumni such as cricketer CB Fry, tennis champion Bunny Austin and runner Harold Abrahams, of ‘Chariots of Fire’ fame. The U18 Girls’ Hockey team were national champions for eight years between 2005 and 2013. One of their players was Kathy Twigg’s daughter, Georgie, who won Bronze at the London Olympics.

The school’s buildings had their own moment of national recognition in 1984, when they featured in the television version of ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’. After an earlier appearance in the original film of 1939 starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Apart from Prior Overton’s Tower and the bases of several pillars, most buildings in the former priory site date from the 19th century. The Library, the Undercroft, and the Pears Building are located on the perimeter of the Priory Garth, much like buildings in an Oxbridge quad. Adding to the idyll is a cricket field with a thatched pavilion.

The school has now expanded well beyond the confines of the former priory. The theatre, chapel, sports hall, games pitches, tennis courts, indoor swimming pool, squash courts, fitness centre, business centre, music school, art school and the New Court Gallery are all located outside the old priory precincts. The most recent addition is the state-of-the-art Science Priory, which includes a 3D lecture theatre that projects images of biological specimens from all angles.

Great British Life: Repton School pupils on the Paddock in front of the Pears Building Photo: Andy WeekesRepton School pupils on the Paddock in front of the Pears Building Photo: Andy Weekes (Image: as submitted Mike Smith)

Given these facilities, it is hardly surprising to read in the most recent Independent Schools Inspection report that ‘the school is exceptionally successful in achieving its aims’. Next April, Alastair Land, who is currently Deputy Head Master at Harrow, will become the 35th Headmaster of a school that has always sought to enable all its students to flourish and realise their potential.

As Cathy Twigg stressed, ‘The students are also aware of their role in the village. Many take on community service by helping older residents with shopping or gardening, while others help at village events and at the local primary school. And the villagers are welcome to use the school’s swimming pool, visit its art exhibitions and attend its drama and musical productions.’

The Chairman of the Parish Council, Barbara McArdle, is one of many villagers who use the school’s indoor pool. She told me: ‘The school gives life to Repton and makes every effort to be a part of the community. Their pupils are a welcome presence in the streets and the school is equally welcoming to villagers. The campus is not cut off in any way and public footpaths even go through the grounds.’

In her role as Chairman, Barbara has a particular interest in preserving and maintaining the extensive network of paths and bridleways in the parish, but she has several other priorities. She says: ‘As a council, we are giving financial support to the Village Hall Committee’s project to replace their present hall with a modern, flexible building. We are also seeking funds to restore the ancient Market Cross, which is being eroded by water ingress.

Great British Life: Thatched cottages on Willington RoadThatched cottages on Willington Road (Image: as submitted Mike Smith)

The iconic cross stands at the intersection of three main roads that pass through the village. All of these roads feature some fine examples of Repton’s 49 listed buildings. A picturesque terrace on Wilmington Road comprises thatched and timbered dwellings dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An equally fine cottage on Burton Road has a thatched roof and a timbered gable and could have been part of a fourteenth-century aisled hall. And a black-and-white Tudor Lodge on High Street is said to incorporate stones from the old priory church.

Hoping to protect this superb townscape and locally important open spaces from inappropriate development, the Parish Council is sponsoring the drafting of a Neighbourhood Plan that will be drawn up by residents. Members of the steering committee for the plan will be looking at the most suitable locations for new homes, shops and community facilities, as well as ways of promoting rural businesses and encouraging tourism in this former capital of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia.

Peter Rainey, who is one of the people working on the plan, highlighted the concerns being voiced by many residents. He said: ‘Plans for 148 new houses have already been approved and proposals for a further 52 have been submitted. We accept the need for new homes, including affordable housing, but we are worried that the building of 200 new dwellings could put a considerable strain on local services and bring a large increase in traffic to the narrow roads of our village.’

After negotiating the traffic that currently uses High Street, I sought refuge in Boot Lane, a much quieter street where I came across the eighteenth-century Boot Inn, which serves the popular Boot Bitter, brewed at the pub’s own micro-brewery. Another favoured place for refreshment for visitors and locals alike is the Repton Tea Rooms, managed for many years by Kathy Crogan. As well as enjoying scrumptious home cooked food, including Kathy’s delicious cakes, customers can savour a wonderful panoramic view of the grounds and buildings of Repton School: a view that brings to mind the famous vista of the colleges of Cambridge University from the ‘Backs’.